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When Men Call Each Other Bitches

Tre Maddox is a “bitch-ass motherfucker.” At least, that’s what Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant declared recently when the NBA ref failed to call a foul in the second quarter of a game against the Bucks. But why do men still call each other bitches, when the rest of us have evolved this word far past its original put down, even sometimes using it as a good thing?

For clues, we can look at the context in which Durant called Maddox a bitch. Maddox acted, in Durant’s view, in a way that showed ignorance and inaction. He didn’t do what Durant wanted. Calling Maddox a bitch-ass motherfucker means he’s more or less a pussy (afraid, weak) but also one who didn’t do Durant’s bidding. (“Bitch-ass motherfucker,” a term whose origin lies in black vernacular, is a particular expression also meant to indicate someone who simply doesn’t act right.)

The move got Durant ejected from the game, and writing at Deadspin, Tom Ley notes that calling him a bitch-ass motherfucker shouldn’t be egregious enough to result in occupying the bench, but that nonetheless, Durant should know that when you call someone a bitch-ass motherfucker, you’re tempting fate. But I would argue that Durant needed no warning. Men know exactly what they’re doing when they call each other bitch. Them’s fightin’ words.

This is backed up by research. Psychology professor and swear words expert Timothy Jay looked into profanity usage over the years and found that only 10 words used just in the last two decades make up 80 percent of the profanity we use. Bitch makes the list.

Jay tells Vice in an interview about male fighters calling each other their bitches or little bitches, that trash talking — as essential to sports as knowing how to play them — is about not just offending the other guy but also getting in his head. To do this, men must use the insults that are understood and universal, and they also must use “fighting words,” or words, he says, that will instigate violence immediately. For men, these words are faggot, homo or pussy, whereas for women they are bitch, slut and whore.

In other words, the worst thing you can call a woman is a whore. But the worst thing you can call a man? A woman.

Jay explains:

There are hundreds of years [of history] of men using effeminate insults in America, but I think what we’re seeing now came out of the prison and gang cultures of the last 30 to 40 years. Calling a man a bitch probably existed in those subcultures or sub-contexts before they made it into the mainstream and appeared on television. Certainly you heard words like that used in gang movies and rap music 30 years ago. When you see two white guys talking like that, they didn’t invent it.

Pussy, wimp, and faggot — those are words that just mark you as being effeminate. But when a man says “you’re my bitch,” that’s ownership. When you understand it coming from prison slang, it’s like I own you. You don’t just get that when you’re calling someone a name. To call someone a queer or a faggot, you’re not saying I own you, and I think that’s why that word might stick a little more as a fighting word and these other words are slurs.

But this is made all the more interesting when you compare this to how bitch has evolved for women. For men, the meaning of the term has remained relatively static in spite of massive social, political and economic change, whereas the word bitch for women has come to mean something entirely different over the five centuries or so its been in use, often changing from decade to decade.

It has pretty much always been a sick burn until around the 1990s, when it was reclaimed for empowerment much like gay culture took back queer. Now it’s a basic greeting. In a history of the term, Arielle Pardes writes that it was meant to mean female dog (but promiscuous, because of all the puppies they have) until about the 1920s, when the usage of bitch in newspapers and literature doubled right alongside women winning the right to vote. In the 1970s, a feminist essay tries to reclaim bitch as “beautiful,” but it doesn’t stick. Male musicians, from jazz artists (Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”) to rock (Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back”) to hip hop and rap, all take bitch for themselves, and it’s never good (Dr. Dre “Bitches Ain’t Shit”).

Then the 90s hit. Pardes writes:

Given all the bad PR, women weren’t really into self-labeling as “bitches” just yet. Queen Latifah flat-out rejected the term in her 1993 song “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which opens with the question: “Who you callin’ a bitch?” Meredith Brooks gave the word a softer interpretation in the song “Bitch” (1997), but still basically defined “bitchiness” as a symptom of PMS.

But then came Trina. Her 1999 not-quite-hit single, “Da Baddest Bitch,” recharacterized the term as a symbol of empowerment. A “bad bitch,” by her definition, was smart and powerful and — perhaps most important — in charge of her sexuality. With her hard beats and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, she took the word back within the very genre that had corrupted it in the first place.

From there, bitch as a term we consider empowering went, as we say today, viral. Madonna would take note and call herself an unapologetic bitch. Feminist mag Bitch Magazine would launch in 1996, and suddenly, praising difficult bitches was a thing. Bitches were in charge, and they knew they were bitches, and they even liked it, and it was good. It could then mean confident or assertive, a boss who knows she’s boss and isn’t even trying to win approval. Even if, in private, declaring someone “such a bitch” is saying they are difficult and female, it’s still largely positive or neutral; You’re still saying they are confident in their lack of fucks given over whether you like them.

For all these reasons, you’d think bitch would — in a world gradually shifting toward greater equality for women, and a world also paralyzed in fear (or so we’re told) over the looming fear of harassment cases in every industry — eventually catch up to men’s usage too. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the whole trouble with bitch (and bitches, too) is that you can never really get a handle on it. As much as women may reclaim bitch to mean anything they want, good or bad, sports has always been a particularly insular, macho culture.

No matter what the rest of us do to unpack its meaning, even if the rest of us take it as a compliment, dudes in sports might all just be little bitches about bitch to the bitter end.